Tomdispatch: The naked truth

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Looking at the stats on visits to my site, I see a pattern: Low readership over the weekend, high readership at midweek and midday. From this, as a friend pointed out to me, you can conclude that reading Tomdispatch trumps work but not play which seems just the right order of priorities and is, of course, part of my fiendish, long-term scheme — for all you conspiracy theorists out there — to subvert American productivity. So this dispatch, released on a Friday is only meant for hard-core Tomdispatch readers, the grim ones among you who, for reasons lost deep in childhood, prefer my send-outs to pleasure.

Like those corner diners and delis that open in my hometown with first-day menus that boast of “Our traditional roast beef sandwich” and the like, I think I’ll refer to this dispatch as my “traditional” biannual check-in, book plug, and general vacuuming. To my amazement, the Tomdispatch readership continues to grow, not quite exponentially but more than steadily. As of today, there are approximately 9,400 official subscribers which, while only a microscopic dot on the cheek of the media (or even of truly popular websites) still amazes me. Consider that when I started on an impulse, with an e-list of ten or twelve friends and relatives, I hardly knew that the Internet existed or that you could read a publication on it.

These are only the known reader figures. The unknowns are so much more interesting. In addition to all the sites that now post Tomdispatch pieces, there is simply no way of counting the countless email pass-ons from people who prefer to create their own private Tomdispatches, and so their own running accounts of the world as they see it, or as it should be but isn’t reported in the mainstream etc. I find especially moving this everyday urge to take back the Word, which I first experienced in some modest form at a moment of complete frustration and despair in November of 2001. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the Right made themselves into the (political) people of the Word — creating a mountain of pamphlets and policy papers (and the think tanks to go with them), books (and the publishers to go with them), shock jocks (and the radio stations to go with them), not to speak of TV news shows, and so on. Now, a countertrend has developed, grossly underfunded and largely but not totally located on the Internet.

I see Tomdispatch and the American Empire Project, the book series I began with a friend and co-editor in 2002, as a small part of this ongoing counter-process. I’m sure I’ll write more on this in the future.

For those of you who might be curious about me — about my background and the non-Tomdispatch parts of my life — after reading my postings for the last year or two, just click here. You’ll be taken to an interview Harry Kreisler, who runs the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley, recently did with me. As an interviewer he not only proved thoughtful but strangely relaxing — and so I think I was more articulate in public than I usually am. (In the pictures at the site I certainly look more relaxed.) His series, called Conversations with History, includes several people I’ve published like Chalmers Johnson, Robert Jay Lifton, and Noam Chomsky. You can also click on a little logo of book covers and check out some of the recent books I’ve edited, or even catch a couple of images of me way back in the 1970s. (There will, from now on, be a link to this interview to the right of the main screen next to my name.)

The summer is fast approaching. Here are a few of the pieces you might find at Tomdispatch over the coming months: As next week begins, in honor of the Iraqi “transition,” a piece by Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, on pseudo-states, and at week’s end, a special Fourth of July quiz to be released just before I take the long weekend off. (I plan to take a couple of weeks off during the summer, just to rest up for what I’m sure will be a busy September and beyond.) Expect as well more from regulars like Mike Davis and Rebecca Solnit; a major new piece by Chalmers Johnson; follow-ups on the Military-Industrial-Entertainment-Scientific-etc. Complex from Nick Turse; a view of us from a Mexican cartoonist; selections from new books by Tom Franks and James Carroll; and from the environmental corner, Chip Ward on charismatic carnivores, and a whale of a Maine tale about big fish and small, industrial polluters and little herring-like alewives — and all sorts of other surprises (since, to be honest, I find myself endlessly surprised by what I find and what finds me).

One technical surprise at Tomdispatch: Sometime this summer the site will finally gain a Google search capacity, something much requested, and helpful to me as well since, while all my pieces are archived, I can’t find most of what I’ve done myself.

Finally, let me turn to the books you shouldn’t leave town without — mine. But before I begin plugging my own books (as I do a couple of times a year), let me once again urge Rebecca Solnit’s little book Hope in the Dark on you. Almost daily, people write me in states of frustration, anger, and depression about the political situation, wondering why more hasn’t happened oppositionally, why the polling figures still look so relatively grim, and whether they shouldn’t just opt out or give up in despair. Solnit, who changed the way I look at history and activism (in a distinctly positive direction), is the antidote to this. But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a little e-note I received the other day from a reader that makes the point better than I ever could:

“Tom, I’ve just finished Rebecca Solnit’s latest book Hope in the Dark. Thank you for recommending it to your readers. I’m an old Vietnam War protestor who spent 9 yrs AWOL in the States, was granted amnesty under Carter’s extension Jan 1976 and spent the next 25 yrs raising a family. I’ve been on the sidelines wanting to do something but not sure where to start. The book has inspired me and I’m back in the fray. Thanks again.”

I can’t match that, but — honestly — if you want to understand where our President and the men of the Bush administration came from — the Cold War childhoods that they spent absorbing what I once dubbed “victory culture” in their local movie theaters; the Vietnam experience that most of them missed; the collapse of an American story of triumph that occurred in their early years; and the ways in which, in the age of Reagan and the first Bush, the men of the right attempted to rebuild American triumphalism — then consider ordering my book The End of Victory Culture at Amazon (or directly from the publisher by clicking here). The Boston Globe called the book “social and cultural history of a high order,” but I’m proudest of the words Studs Terkel offered up: “America Victorious has been our country’s postulate since its birth. Tom Engelhardt, with a burning clarity, recounts the end of this fantasy, from the split atom to Vietnam. It begins at our dawn’s early light and ends with the twilight’s last gleaming. It is as powerful as a Joe Louis jab to the solar plexus.”

On the other hand, should you be interested in the part of my life I seldom write about at Tomdispatch — what it’s been like as an editor to live through the years when the media conglomerates made publishing houses into hors d’oeuvres, then consider getting your hands on my novel, The Last Days of Publishing at Amazon (or directly from the publisher by clicking here).

The novelist Herbert Gold did a lively, amusing review of it in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (“The book business as fiction”) which I run in full here. It should give you the flavor of the book:

“Tom Engelhardt’s The Last Days of Publishing” can’t possibly be libelous. Granted, it’s a satisfyingly virulent, comical, absurd, deeply grieving true portrait of how things work today in the sleek factories of conglomerate book producers, but hey, it’s not libelous, it’s just a story. Still, some readers may find it curious that this skillful novel of manners — of very bad manners — is published by a university press, not one of the major New York houses for whom the author labored as an editor. Probably just a coincidence.

“I can recall when publishers were bigots and egomaniacs, like film producers in tweeds. And those were the good guys. In those days, the Scribe was still a treasured commodity, to be treated with honor, even if it was purely business. Engelhardt begins his story remembering the sacred calling of the stylus wielder in ancient times, recalling an iconic statue in Pompeii. Rumor has it, of course, that many writers now use computers, not the stylus, having run out of clay to be dug out of their backyards; personally, I no longer inscribe my hard copy commandments on papyrus. Nowadays, the Scribe is asked to be a camera-ready performer and the publisher is often an MBA representing owners in Alphaville.

“Rick Koppes, the protagonist of this novel, ‘still felt ready to be used by anyone whose words mattered to me, just not by what had come to pass for an editor’s life.’ His ex-wife has come to be his boss and she has written a book of stories that she wants him to edit, informing him triumphantly, ‘I hate to disappoint you, but you’re not in it.’ Oh, sadness, not even to be worthy of mention in an ex-wife’s thinly veiled autobiography.

“Koppes has a host of troubles. Another superior is a smart and smarmy ex-hippie-radical ‘transnational’ mogul; Engelhardt captures the smartness, the smarminess, the mogulness. He knows how it feels to be at the top of the skyscraper, submitting to a mogul’s ‘fatherly squeeze.’ He also remembers that better world, pre-Vesuvius, before publishers’ catalogs announced ‘next season’s offerings, signed up long ago by editors laid off by a management no longer in place for a house that, in all but name, may no longer exist.’

“Coming into midlife out of the druggy communard ’60s, he is nostalgic for the camaraderie of Vietnam War protests. There is a painful scene in which a colleague goes berserk on the proprietor of a Vietnamese restaurant — old chickens or, in this case, Peking ducks coming to roost. An old lover asks the sophomoric question, ‘And you, Rick, are you happy?’ — youthful questing makes a middle-aged guy squirm. The bass beat of ’60s nostalgia throbs beneath a seething satire of how it’s all turned out in the word trade. Once, the sap ran fresh in a young person’s veins; now, the saps run things. Once, Koppes remembers, ‘midlist books’ would merely have been called ‘books.’ Now, for the conglomerateurs, they’re just a drag on the bottom line.

“Contracts, agents, bidding wars, ego and sexual duels, royalty accounts, advances, has-beens and buzzing would-bees — Litbiz still shocks new writers from the hinterlands (personally, I still consider myself a new writer from the hinterland). But there’s another breed that likes to pitch ‘my faction novel’ or ‘my very personal memoir.’ Through my telescope from the hinterland, I can almost recognize some of the real people who come in for a few tickles and stabs in Engelhardt’s telling.

“Alcohol and frustration fuel the occasional fistfight in these angelic spheres. A veteran editor is fired by the ‘personnel communications manager’ and then led to her desk — she’s to be out of there in 45 minutes — by a guard called a ‘communications retainer.’ Graciously, he allows her to go alone into the ladies room to dry her tears. Compassion lives.

“Another episode depicts a dinosaur expert pitching a book to Koppes with a lecture on dinosaur sex with humans, including an evocation of dinosaur breath (bad) and dental problems (fluoride toothpaste still only a Pepsodent dream). The term ‘high concept’ reminds us that the movie biz is near and dear to publishing. Engelhardt also shows us a writer rashly submitting a manuscript without an agent, which has become as odd a notion as a knight entering ‘the field of battle on foot and without armor or a sword.’

“Grieving, he clings to his faith in ‘the book as a thoroughly modest object meant to break you into immodest spaces.’ The tone of amused, wistful Manhattan romance, like that of an F. Scott Fitzgerald brought up to contemporary speed, enriches moments like this evocation of Koppes’ former wife: ‘An aura clung to her, a faintly misty, spiritual look I now associate with missing contact lenses.’ And a harder edge, as when a bookstore clerk suggests that a book about the atom bomb and Hiroshima might be found in the travel section. Or when a publishing executive avoids the word ‘history’ in favor of ‘back story.’ Hello, Century City script conference.

“Though this novel can be read as an anatomy of the publishing business, year 2003, and a lament for better times — somewhat better times — the characters depicted are not mere stick figures or roman à clef gossips. The scenes are vividly set, and this writer, made of stern stuff, was laughing through his tears. Engelhardt manages to tell us that the love of literature persists even in these frantic times.

“It’s essential to good reading to recognize that novels are true lies — truer and more philosophical than history, as Aristotle said about poetry. The episodes in Engelhardt’s account emit a sense of autobiographical anguish, seasoned with an ironic notch at one corner of his mouth.”

But of all the reviews I ever got, the one that made me proudest was the first, written about a book that no longer exists anywhere. I wrote Beyond Our Control, America in the Mid Seventies about a cross-country trip a photographer friend and I took back in the Watergate era. It was published by a small press, distributed by a company that collapsed as the book appeared, and it passed out of existence almost before passing into it; yet, by some absurd miracle, it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by William Manchester (who recently died). A former foot soldier in the worst of the fighting in the Pacific in World War II, he concluded, “The stamina and reflectiveness of its author reveal him as an excellent reporter. One can only add that he would have made one hell of an infantryman.” I still feel the strange glow of that line. Tom